In preparing these publications I was delighted to discover that the novelist Serena Mackesy – author of Sunday Times bestseller The Temp (1999), Virtue (2000), Simply Heaven (2002) and Hold My Hand (2008) – is Kennedy’s maternal granddaughter. Serena has now very kindly written an appreciation of her grandmother’s work exclusively for Finds, which I’m delighted to reproduce below. I would also draw readers’ attentions to the serendipitous fact that a Kindle edition of Serena’s acclaimed Hold My Hand is newly available at Amazon, at a price that would tempt any sane person in search of guaranteed ‘goose bumps in the summer months’ (cf. Kirkus Review.)
But for the moment we proudly present ‘Mackesy On Kennedy’…:
An early bestseller can be both a blessing and curse on a writer’s career. Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, The Constant Nymph, became a phenomenon in the 1920s – a global bestseller which spawned stage plays starring the likes of Coward and Gielgud, as well as three big-business films – and, while this opened doors that might well have remained closed for years otherwise, she found herself under pressure, throughout her career, to repeat the formula.
Kennedy, however, was not a genre novelist by nature. Although The Fool of the Family is, indeed, a sequel to the Nymph, and also features moments of the same underplayed emotional devastation that made that novel such a success, it barely touches on the fortunes of the book’s central characters – the most important of whom, of course, died at its end. It follows, instead, the fortunes of the younger Sanger children, ill-equipped by their celebrated Bohemian upbringing for life in the ‘real’ world. Her portrait of the fear and drudgery of poverty is acute and moving – and was a great disappointment to the Bloomsbury group, who had adopted the Nymph as a working bible, rather missing the point of the satire within.
It was light-touch satire, and wry and incisive social observation, that formed the common threads that bind Kennedy’s novels together. And like many writers who make these techniques their stock-in-trade, she was a very serious individual. Nymph enthusiasts, buoyed up by fantasies of a gauze-clad free spirit romping on the seashore, were often surprised to find that the book had come from the typewriter of a bookish bluestocking. But this, of course, is the reason that her work was so strong, and so entertaining: she didn’t write memoir, but, rather, combined imagination, observation and a powerful flair for human psychology to create real, walking, talking individuals whose choices had profound, often disastrous, repercussions that often spread far beyond their social spheres.
She was a writer of wide human interests. As fascinated by the domestic as the powerful – mixing, herself, with the worlds of film (where she made much of her living, both as screenwriter and script doctor) and theatre and, via her law-lord husband, with those of government, academia and high society – she was the one standing in the corner taking notes, and identifying the pettiness, the assumptions and the irrationality that pervade most human decisions, from those of the billionaire to those of the overlooked housewife.
In The Midas Touch (the book she regarded as her best, and which was translated to film in the early Forties), a wealthy industrialist falls under the influence of a fraudulent psychic. The eponymous heroine of Lucy Carmichael has her beliefs about the world turned on her head as she recovers from a humiliating at-the-altar jilting. The Feast – my own favourite of her works – turns allegory into social comedy as a disparate group of holidaymakers while away their time in a Cornish hotel, unaware that several of them will meet a horrific death before the summer’s end. She remains a joy to read; fresh, clear, unexpected and, at the end, always profoundly moving.